Survival Strategies: homemade Sterno stove

Posted: 25/08/2009 in Uncategorized
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There are a great many products on the market that you can use to heat your meals with whilst on the run, whether that be from a bully or a nuke blast. Most are safe, at least to some extent. Some, of course, are not. We’ll look at some of the different stoves available in another post. Today, I want to talk about what has become one of the most reliable fuel/stove combos, as well as one of the safest fuels. Sterno. What is it? Basically, it is gelatinized alcohol. Alcohol makes for a very good fuel, but as a liquid it can be troublesome to use. In gelled form, it’s a breeze. I love the stuff for an emergency source of cooking fuel.

You can usually find the cans in most any sporting goods or camping section of major retailers, and sometimes you’ll find them in the food prep section as they are also frequently used in warming chafing dishes. Usually, they’re found in a three pack. The stoves themselves are becoming tough to find, so I thought I would build my own portable Sterno stove. There are, like I mentioned, commercially available units that work just fine. The most prevalent is the folding stove, and then there is the one that simply slides over a can of Sterno. But this is, after all a survival and camping tips blog, so I figured, what the hey!

I have seen a few rather extravagant models that have been crafted by some of the best Red Green outdoorsman in the world, but I just simply hack up a tin can. When you are in a bind, you may not have time to get creative, and simple is as simple does (sorry, Forrest). I normally buy the 8 oz cans of Sterno which means I had to use a big can. A 24 oz stew can was just the right size.

Here’s the simple Sterno stove; open the can of stew, or whatever you have bought, and place the product into a pan of sufficient size. Scrub the inside of the can out to make sure there are no food particles or grease left on the inside of the can. Punch four to six ¼ inch holes around the sides of the can about 2 and ¾ ” from the bottom for air holes. Fire consumes oxygen, remember? Then punch two or three similar sized holes about ¼ ” from the top of the can. And that’s your emergency Sterno stove. Simple is as simple does, eh? The reason for the holes at the top is to get the air moving inside the can so that as the heat escapes from the top it draws more air in from the outside. I found if you don’t put the holes at the top, when you plant a fry pan or whatever on the stove its efficiency plummets and the flame tends to go out.

To work the stove, simply pry the lid off of a can of Sterno and place it into the stove, open side up. Drop a burning match into the can of Sterno to light the fuel. Place that pan of stew on top of the stove and in a few minutes you’ll have a nice piping hot meal. Just remember that since the stew can is metal, It will get very hot to touch, and the potential exists to possibly ignite any flammable surface the stove is placed upon, such as a wood counter or grass and leaves. Thi9s can be countered by placing the stove on a rock, or maybe a piece of metal such as an overturned fry pan.

So, to get back to the questions, what is Sterno? Sterno is a mixture of denatured alcohol, water and a special pink gel that they use to contain the fuel. The gel is essentially non toxic, but the alcohol is not. Be careful and make sure no one consumes the fuel accidentally. Wash your hands after handling it, and if a piece of food drops into the can, please don’t eat it. And if somebody does eat it, make sure you get medical attention immediately.

As far as the usefulness goes, they last quite a while. An 8oz. can, like I prefer, burns for up to t 2 ½ hours. The 7oz. can burns for up to 2 ¼ hours. The 2.6oz. can burns up to 45 minutes. The cooking fuel is extinguishable by simply dropping the lid on the can, and can be re-lit until the product is gone. An added benefit to keeping Sterno on hand is that it will not freeze. Some fuels can, especially other alcohol based fuels because of the water in them.

In addition to using Sterno for heating and cooking food, you can always scoop a spoonful or two out of the can and use it as a fire starter as well. Don’t lick the spoon after. I know you’re thinking about it, so don’t. They’re also easy to find on the road, too. Most kitchen places will sell at least the smaller cans because most chafing dishes are made to use Sterno because the flame is hotter than a candle flame, which makes it safer for the food.

The Sterno company, on their website says that you should replace the fuel after two years, but I have had fuel that kept for over five years in a cool location. Once you open the can, however, the fuel, being alcohol, begins to evaporate. So if you want a long term life, you may wish to also vacuum pack the individual cans inside a vac pack bag.

Safety note! Sterno burns with an almost clear flame, slightly blue at times, so if the can is open, presume that it is burning until you can determine otherwise. It is quite easy to burn yourself when you cannot see a flame.

The advantages of using this type of set up is that it is quick, easy, and safe.

Propane stoves require bulky storage bottle which can be quite heavy if you’ll need a lot of them. And in really cold weather or at very high altitudes propane may not work very well. Liquid gas stoves need to be primed and you have to carry highly flammable fuel for them. In a pinch, you can normally prepare a day’s worth of hot food with one 8 oz can of Sterno, and the cans are easy to dispose of. In some communities, propane bottles have to be recycled. Not that that will matter if the you know what hits the fan.

But that’s my quick and easy Sterno stove. Stay tuned and maybe I’ll share some menu items that can easily be prepared with a little Sterno stove, and remember, are you ready to survive the coming times?


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